Here’s my ultimate guide, featuring the top things to do in Cairns, the best day trips and where to stay.
My hometown of Townsville has always had a competitive rivalry with Cairns. Located five hours drive apart (practically neighbours in Queensland terms), I’ve visited Cairns a few times over the years. Due to its year-round tropical climate and close proximity to both the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, Cairns definitely receives more visitors than Townsville. In fact, it’s the fourth most visited destination in Australia.
THINGS TO DO IN CAIRNS
WALK ALONG THE ESPLANADE AND VISIT THE LAGOON
Stretch your legs and go for a morning or evening walk along the Esplanade in Cairns. Then cool off in the Lagoon, which is a large saltwater swimming pool. It features ramp access, underwater seating and sand/timber decking surrounds. The Lagoon is one of the busiest attractions in Cairns, but it’s the safest place to swim year-round (summer = stinger season in the ocean).
HEAD TO A SWIMMING HOLE
There are two popular swimming holes near Cairns. Babinda Boulders (or Devil’s Pool) is a beautiful natural swimming pool surrounded by rainforest. There’s also a picnic area so you can relax and enjoy your visit. Crystal Cascades also has a BBQ and picnic area. Popular with locals, there’s a series of small waterfalls that flow into the large pool, which is surrounded by rainforest and large granite boulders.
VISIT TJAPUKAI CULTURAL PARK
Tjapukai Cultural Park says it’s the “original authentic Australian indigenous cultural experience.” The park features both day and night events, which include performances, dance, food and the arts. It’s a must visit Cairns attraction.
POP INTO GALLO DAIRYLAND
Located on the Atherton Tablelands, Gallo Dairyland is for fellow cheese and chocolate lovers. There’s an onsite cafe, cheese tasting and an animal nursery that children will love.
GO CHASING WATERFALLS
Cairns is a waterfall hotspot! Firstly, there’s Josephine Falls located at the bottom of Queensland’s highest mountain range. It’s known for its natural rockslide. Next is Kuranda’s Barron Falls, which is a tiered waterfall and Cairns landmark. A little further afield is Millaa Millaa Falls – a picturesque 18-metre waterfall with swimming hole.
HAVE DINNER AT BAYLEAF
Locals and visitors alike rave about the authentic dinner at Bayleaf Balinese Restaurant. I am a big fan of mie goreng, but apparently you can’t miss the satay here. Finish with dessert and a cup of coffee from the highlands in Bali.
ENJOY THE SUNSET FROM SALT HOUSE
Salt House is a great spot for sunset drinks. It’s a restaurant, bar and pizzeria with panoramic ocean and mountain views. You can sip a cocktail on a daybed, listen to live music at the bar or enjoy a pizza. Perfection 👌.
HEAD TO PORT DOUGLAS
When in Cairns, definitely make the time to head north to Port Douglas. Only an hour’s drive away, Port Douglas is a total seaside town, with boutiques, luxurious resorts and lovely beaches. There are other beaches along the way worth a visit too, including Palm Cove, Trinity Beach and Ellis Beach.
VISIT RUSTY’S MARKET
Cairns has two popular markets: Rusty’s Market and a Night Market. Rusty’s is a farmers market that’s open Friday to Sunday every week. Local sources say it’s best to visit on Sunday near closing time, when prices are slashed.
HAVE BRUNCH AT THE LILLIPAD CAFE
The Lillipad Cafe is known for its delectable food and large portion sizes. There are plenty of vegan and vegetarian dishes, and the brunch menu includes an array of international dishes. There’s shakshuka, a Turkish breakfast and huevos rancheros.
EXPERIENCE THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
VISIT MOSSMAN GORGE
Mossman Gorge is only 20 minutes from Cairns and is a part of the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest. One of the best things to do in the gorge is the Dreamtime Walk with a local indigenous guide.
GO WHITE WATER RAFTING
ENJOY DINNER AT COCK & BULL
Another place known for its generous portion sizes is Cock & Bull. Check it out for hearty pub grub, like bangers and mash, roast and curry.
SMILE LIKE A CROCODILE AT HARTLEY’S CROCODILE ADVENTURES
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures is a wildlife park between Cairns and Port Douglas. There’s a lagoon for crocodile feeding, a cassowary walk, a wildlife discovery trail and a crocodile farm. If you want to get up close to crocodiles and other wildlife, this is the place to go.
HAVE A FUN NIGHT OUT
When I was in uni, my friends and I went on a road trip to Cairns for a friend’s 21st. We stayed at Gilligan’s and had a very fun night out, as there’s a nightclub onsite. These days, there are plenty of cool bars to check out around the city centre. There’s Flamingo Tiki Bar and Three Wolves, which offers a selection of specialty whiskeys, spirits, cocktails, wine and beer. The Conservatory Bar, where you can create your own grazing boards, is naturally popular with locals. Finally, Lilo has a restaurant, bar and rooftop pool deck with impressive views.
HOP IN A HOT AIR BALLOON
Another popular thing to do in Cairns is a hot air balloon ride over the Atherton Tablelands.
STOP FOR A COFFEE
Cairns has excellent restaurants, bars and cafes. Don’t miss having a coffee break at Blackbird Espresso, which stocks its own organic Blackbird coffee blends. Other popular coffee spots include Industry One Coffee Roasters and Paradiso Cafe (known for its fun palm print coffee cups).
GET AN ADRENALINE RUSH
Adrenaline junkies will feel right at home in Cairns – it’s an adventurer’s playground! Firstly, AJ Hackett Cairns offers the world’s first BMX Bungy. Yep, you ride a BMX bike off the platform’s roof. You can also skydive over the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns or land on the golden sands of Mission Beach. The choice is yours. Finally, why not try ziplining through the Daintree Rainforest?
WALK THROUGH CAIRNS BOTANICAL GARDENS
Cairns Botanical Gardens has one of the best tropical plants displays in Australia. There’s a saltwater and freshwater lake, a rainforest boardwalk, a bamboo collection, an Aboriginal plant garden and free guided tours. This is one of the best free things to do in Cairns.
HEAD TO THE DAINTREE RAINFOREST
There are plenty of day tours available from Cairns to the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation. Most of them include a cruise along the Daintree River.
DO A DAY TRIP TO KURANDA
Kuranda is a must visit when in Cairns. I loved visiting when I was younger. There are also organised day tours available, which include a ride on both the Skyrail Cableway and Scenic Railway. I highly recommend a journey on both as they’re a fun way to see the sights. Top things to do in Kuranda include visiting the markets, Rainforestation Nature Park, Barron Falls and the Butterfly Sanctuary.
WHERE TO STAY IN CAIRNS
AccorHotels actually has several properties in Cairns. Firstly, there’s an ibis Styles. Ibis has always been a go-to hotel chain for me when I’m looking for budget-friendly hotels. But for a luxurious stay, check out the five-star Pullman Cairns International Hotel. Onsite you’ll find tropical pools (plural), a restaurant and bar, and a fitness centre. You may not want to leave the property to tick off this list of the best things to do in Cairns!
I hope this bumper list helps you plan your trip to Cairns. And hey, if you have more time, why not head south to Townsville and Magnetic Island as well 😉.
This post contains affiliate links and is published in partnership with AccorHotels.